Chalk is the new (old) medium for self-expression

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2013 - 10:14 AM
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Photo: BRIAN PETERSON • brianp@startribune.com,

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Chalkboards once were a classroom staple. They could be black or green, but always dusty all over with the dregs of algebra problems, history dates and homework assignments.

Occasionally, someone might scrawl a wisecrack, or draw a rude stick figure. But they inevitably were ratted out and sentenced to writing a repeated repentance at the scene of the crime — a punishment now enshrined in the opening of “The Simpsons.”

Today, amid texts, tweets, snapchats and Instagrams, some people are reviving this retro means of communication, putting chalk to chalkboards to write messages that may be poignant, practical or descriptive of tonight’s pork special. Even as the dry-erase boards in classrooms are being replaced by “smart boards” that perform like computers, chalk-wielders may marvel at the opportunities they have to express themselves.

Among the most interactive chalkboards are those in the “Before I Die” project, which offers a “fill in the blank” format for aspirations. The result is a sort of communal bucket list that, judging from several boards in the Twin Cities, turns out to be more selfless than some might expect. For sure, some want to see the Vikings in the Super Bowl, but more want to improve the world.

Restaurants are discovering chalk’s utility, posting menus on blackboards to save printing costs, while exploiting chalk’s gritty-chic vibe.

Booths in Blue Door Pubs in Minneapolis and St. Paul have blackboards, especially welcomed by families with kids. The Royal Grounds coffee shop at 4161 Grand Av. S. in Minneapolis encourages sidewalk artistry. (Coffee drinkers who recall how Mary Poppins jumped into the chalk drawing have to wonder why life isn’t more like the movies.)

In a similar vein, customers entering the bland foyer of a St. Paul coffee shop are invited to pick up a piece of chalk, choose a brick and write their favorite word. Within the resulting grid: Bubble. Thunder. Collaborate. Oatmeal. Whoop.

Also: Penis. “I’m constantly erasing that word,” said Anne Mayers, who manages Fresh Grounds, 1362 W. 7th St. “There’s some teenage boy who thinks that’s very, very funny.”

Her exasperation is tempered with laughter, and the knowledge that even wannabe anarchists can’t resist being given permission to express themselves.

“It’s just tremendous fun,” she said. “Each little brick means something to someone.”

At Northeast United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, Pastor Sarah Lawton hung an outdoor chalkboard this spring near the church’s community garden, where passersby pick what they need. “This was sort of the logical next step, to let people enter another space to think and talk.”

Sometimes, she’ll write a prompting question such as: “If you followed your heart, where would it take you?”

“I’m a professional talker, but what I aspired to do was not for me to be the talker, but for us to get talking,” she said.

“I mean, I look at my Caribou coffee cup and it has all these really profound sayings like, ‘Be the first to apologize,’ and, ‘Stay awake for life.’ But it’s just me and my coffee cup. We interact about shoes, and Miley Cyrus. Why not about the more powerful and deepest parts of life, too?”

Granted, she said, “a chalkboard isn’t always an immediate interaction with life, but it’s a ‘hold’ space for it. It doesn’t just disappear when you hit ‘Send.’ You get to walk by it again, and again.”

She’d lucked into the slab of slate when a school threw out its blackboards, which solved her idea’s biggest challenge.

“It’s really hard to find a chalkboard.”

Information and artistry

A few people even seek to earn a living drawing with chalk.

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